Can you believe South Park began its 21st season this week? I can’t – not because it makes me feel so goaddamned old, but that creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have managed to keep it fresh through 278 episodes. One of the reasons for South Park’s longevity and freshness is the pair’s underrated understanding of storytelling. Okay, it’s not exactly Shakespeare, but they always expertly make Story B mirror Story A.
First off, I’m not a die-hard South Park fan – I’ve probably watched three episodes in the last fifteen years but, while I enjoyed it to begin with, I can’t bring myself to watch episode after episode of it or The Simpsons and, unlike one of my best friends, I get bored after about two Family Guys in a row.
Yes, most shows have an ABC story structure, but with a runtime of twenty-one minutes, the season 21 premieré, White People Renovating Houses only features only an A–Story and B-Story. And this episode is a masterclass in how to make the Story B mirror Story A, so listen up, white people, but before we get to how to make YOUR Story B mirror Story A, let’s answer one question:
WHAT IS AN ABC STORY?
The A-Story is your main narrative and dramatic core of a movie or episode. Therefore, it must feature your main character(s) presented with a problem they must overcome or Intention/Obstruction as Aaron Sorkin would say.
A-Stories are generally seen through the eyes of the protagonist. In police procedurals, this will be the main character(s) solving the case of the week… a murder in CSI, a monster of the week in The X-Files.
The B-Story is a parallel storyline (or “thread”) which can follow primary or secondary characters. Its job is to add depth and meaning. In a police procedural, it may be a detective’s home life (think Luther’s divorce) or it may provide a different perspective of events through different eyes. B-Stories are vital, if for no other reason than enabling you to cut away from the main story thread.
The C-Story (also called a “runner“) can serve two purposes – it often provides light relief or can take the form of ongoing series arcs which pay off further down the line. There can also be D, E and F Stories and even A/A/A stories, where, according to The Good Guys writer, Rick Muirragu “an episode with A/A/A stories is an episode in which three characters have storylines that all have equal weight in the episode. No one story fills the episode; they all equally fill the episode,” but ABC is the most common.
In Die Hard, the A-Story is obviously John McClane stopping the terrorists in the Nakatomi Building. The B-Story sees John trying to win back his estranged wife’s love. The C-Story is the beat cop’s journey (the guy who calls John ‘Roy Rogers’) plus the FBI’s bungled involvement.
And that’s not to mention all the other storeys in the Nakatomi Building. Not counting the mezzanine (name the other film!)
ALWAYS HAVE YOUR STORY B MIRROR STORY A
Back to South Park S21E01, which doesn’t have a C-Story. We open with Story A (though it could be argued A and B have been flipped in this episode due to the amount of screen time) with Cartman et al having fun and laughing their butts off instructing Amazon’s Alexa to say rude, childish words, until they are interrupted by Cartman’s girlfriend, Heidi. She wants to talk about their relationship but Cartman gets angry and blames her for humiliating him in front of his friends.
Across town, in Story B, TV host, Randy is trying to help the community by renovating people’s houses and present his show, the perfectly realised “White People Renovating Houses”. Randy is interrupted by an angry mob of Confederate flag-waving white supremacists who are taking on the liberals by protesting the fact their jobs are being replaced by Amazon, Google Home and Siri.
After several scenes featuring Heidi – who just wants to talk and resolve their problems, she tells Cartman “we have to communicate to respect each other’s opinions” and (mirroring the way he tries to silence her just as he does Alexa device) that he “wants to be heard but doesn’t want to listen.”
You see, these two lines from Heidi could just as easily be uttered by Randy when dealing with the white nationalists. And hey fuckin’ presto – Randy and the white nationalists’ Story B perfectly mirrors Cartman and Heidi’s Story A. It’s like poetry, they rhyme.
In summary, when creating your B-Story, it must mirror and add depth to the themes that exist within your A-Story. If it doesn’t, then you’re gonna need to read more about ABC Stories and your script probably a needs a rewrite.
If you really want to learn how to make your Story B mirror Story A, maybe use the flashbacks in Lost as a masterclass.
South Park continues next Tuesday, 19th September on Comedy Central.